Sensemaking - an advanced qualitative research technique

 Understanding why people do what they do, by exploring how they do it

Sensemaking is an advanced qualitative research technique developed exclusively by Susan Bell Research

Traditionally, researchers have tried to reach inside people's heads, to see the 'attitudes' or 'motives'  which they presume to be the forces that guide behaviour. The problem is that these attitudes and motives are invisible to the human eye, and very difficult to correlate with any kind of behaviour.

Our new qualitative research technique Sensemaking takes a different approach. It asks 'how have people made sense of this situation, and what behaviour resulted from that?'  Many decisions that people make in life are hard. People have to reconcile different ideas or beliefs, or act without access to all the information. Sensemaking helps us understand how people have put the pieces of the puzzle together when faced with these hard decisions.

Our Sensemaking technique is based on a blend of anthropology and social psychology.

We have based our technique on the 'sensemaking' concept developed by Karl Weick  who developed it originally for organisational decisions. We think it works well for:

  • Organisational decisions
  • Decisions made by couples and families
  • Difficult decisions made by individuals

Our focus is always on how people actually make decisions and actually behave in the real world.

As a research agency, we are going out on a limb here, challenging the research industry to stop pretending that people make decisions in some kind of individualistic choice-modelling kind of way. Real people lead busy lives, getting things done (sometimes well and sometimes badly) and then moving on to the next thing.  

Sensemaking is a meaning-making process

Naturally and without intending to do so, people assign meaning to their experiences. It's an active process often involving how they feel about themselves in that moment. We often find for example, that people 'wade into' situations and then need to make sense of what is happening around them before they can do anything. 

Sensemaking research is a challenge to behavioural economics

  • Sensemaking projects are about how people actually behave in the real world not how they behave in experiments - which is where most of the behavioural economics theories originate.

  • Sensemaking projects are non-judgmental. We don't say that people are flawed in their thinking. We say that people think the way they do to get things done in the best possible way they can at the time. Our job is to find out how they think.

Three facts about sensemaking research

  1. Sensemaking projects are interview-based projects. 

  2. They are ethnographic in that they seek to understand the person's world in situ

  3. They are based on story-telling. When people want to make sense of what they are doing or bring sense to what just happened to them, they tell a story about it. So, we gain insight into how people make sense of their experiences by listening to how they talk about the actions they took.

This is fresh thinking. You will not find this kind of research anywhere else. We are always happy to challenge existing ways of doing things.


Tags: sense-making, Decision Making, Naturalistic decision making, People-centred research

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